First week of full campus COVID-19 testing plagued by long lines

MIT Medical extends testing hours, adds wait time page to COVID Pass app

Some members of the MIT community spent over two hours waiting in line to receive COVID-19 tests at MIT Medical Aug. 18 after being notified on their COVID Pass app that they would need to be tested within 24 hours or have their access to campus revoked. Wait times of over an hour have continued through the past week as MIT scales testing to all COVID Pass users. As of press time, MIT Medical has reported seven positive test results on its website.

MIT community members who live in an MIT residence hall or are on campus more than three days a week are tested twice weekly. Non-residents on campus one to three days per week are tested weekly, and all other visitors need a test within seven days prior to accessing campus, according to the MIT COVID Apps website. COVID Pass notifies MIT community members when they need to be tested, displays their testing results, and allows them to complete mandatory daily health attestations. There are approximately 8,000 COVID Pass users, although over half of them are currently not accessing campus. 

MIT began scaling up testing Aug. 13, such that all COVID Pass users currently on campus would be tested by Aug. 20. A record total of 957 and 1,930 tests were performed Aug. 17 and Aug. 18, respectively, according to emails from MIT Medical Director Cecilia Stuopis ’90 and Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz forwarded to The Tech

Lines snaked from MIT Medical to the East Campus courtyard Aug. 17 and to the Kendall/MIT T stop Aug. 18. Tee Udomlumleart ’21 said in an interview with The Tech that he waited one and a half hours to get tested on both Aug. 18 and Aug. 25. Several MIT community members posted pictures of and complained about the lines on Twitter. 

Wait times averaged 45–60 minutes Aug. 17 and Aug 18. Average wait times decreased to under 15 minutes Aug. 26. Overall, they have averaged 15–20 minutes, Stuopis wrote in an email to The Tech

The long lines were partially due to clumping around certain hours. Udomlumleart said that although lines were 200 patients long the morning of Aug. 18, lines had shortened to 30 patients by that afternoon. Wait times on the MIT Medical Twitter page have also fluctuated from an hour to under 15 minutes. If hundreds of people arrive at once, “it is hard to catch up,” Stuopis wrote.  

Due to the long wait times, MIT Medical increased from eight hours of testing to 12 each weekday (5 a.m.–5 p.m.), “reengineered the lines,” and doubled testing capacity, Stuopis wrote. A page showing wait times was also added to COVID Pass Aug. 24. 

Additionally, MIT Medical is hoping for a “do-it-yourself-at-home model.” The application for self-swabs was submitted weeks ago and is awaiting Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. Unfortunately, there is no timeline for when the FDA will respond to the application, Stuopis wrote. 

However, MIT Medical will not implement an appointment system because based on experiences from testing in the spring, “it is far too burdensome to manage properly” and “the no-show rate was incredibly high and that made it difficult to manage our resources,” Stuopis wrote. 

“To be honest, I am super annoyed that you have to wait for two hours,” Udomlumleart said. However, he remains optimistic about the possibility of more testing stations, extended hours, and a better system. MIT Medical is “a small organization, but they seem to learn everything. So I am hopeful.”

Ultimately, Stuopis wrote, “the MIT community should be prepared to wait in line to be tested. Given the high volume of testing we are doing and the amount of time it takes to perform a test, waits will be unavoidable when we get surges of people.”

MIT community members receive testing results within 48 hours, although 24-hour turnaround times are “common,” Stuopis wrote in an email to The Tech. Tests are processed by the Broad Institute, which is capable of processing 35,000 tests per day and of increasing testing capacity, Stuopis wrote.

Stuopis expects MIT Medical to test over 10,000 people in the Fall term. As students may cancel housing until Aug. 28, it is unclear exactly how many students and employees will be on campus, Stuopis wrote.

Testing is conducted in a trailer outside of MIT Medical. The trailer is partitioned into two areas, one for check in and one for testing. At check in, Patients scan a barcode from COVID Pass and are asked to confirm their date of birth and phone number for identification. Once identified, patients are handed a labeled sample tube and a sealed swab. Patients then enter the testing area, where they swab themselves at one of six stations, and a staff member moves the sample tube with the swab to a rack. Patients exit to an area with disinfecting supplies.

In a best-case scenario, testing takes two minutes, Stuopis wrote. However, fully sanitizing each swabbing station after each patient is tested takes an additional 75–90 seconds. “Performing a swab is more invasive and takes more time” than a flu immunization, Stuopis wrote, so lines move more slowly than those of flu clinics. 

There are generally 12 testers, four check-in staff, and two to four staff standing in line and answering questions, along with management staff. Shifts vary in length as it is difficult to wear PPE for extended periods of time, and some staff also need to care for non-COVID-19 patients, Stuopis wrote. 

The trailer has many safety precautions, including floor-to-ceiling plastic partitions the length of the trailer separating staff from patients. Testing bays are fitted with large rubber gloves in the partition so that staff do not physically contact patients. The HVAC system is “specifically to minimize risk of exposure,” Stuopis wrote. There are also signs reminding those in lines to wear masks and stay at least six feet apart. 

MIT Medical is “confident that the false negative rate [of the tests] is acceptable,” Stuopis wrote, especially given that testing occurs multiple times a week, and there are other measures such as Quarantine Week (Aug. 29–Sept. 7), masks, and physical distancing in place.

Daily testing statistics are available at